The death of Phillip Hughes is one of those things that just fails to be processed. I’ve spent the better part of the year outraged at rugby league for the reckless indifference of the ruling body and the players towards safety. Ever since Alex McKinnon was left a quadriplegic as the result of a tackling technique that the sport tut tuts at, but then drives itself to distraction to excuse and ignore. I expect further life-altering injuries while a culture of false masculinity rules within the sport, from the influential voices in the media, to the ruling bodies, to the player themselves who treat any attempt to protect their long term health and safety as a unmanning. I expect one day in the near future we’ll discover the same wide spread brain injuries in NRL players as they are finding in American NFL players. I expect one day a player will be killed from a dangerous tackle.
I did not expect a cricket player to be killed, even to a bouncer.
Maybe that’s naive. Helmet manufacturers used to proclaim the impossibility of fully protecting a player from a cricket ball moving at pace. Batsmen always seem to manage to get, if not their body then at least their heads, out of the way. Except when they don’t. As little as a month ago another player had his jaw broken by a ball getting under the face guard. And of course the celebrated menace of Mitchell Johnson in the 2013-14 Ashes series resulted in one injury - albeit from a yorker not a bouncer - but was lauded for it’s intimidatory effect on the English.
It was a tragic accident that befell Hughes. He was struck in the back of the head at the right location to cause such an internal bleed into his brain after failing to connect with the bat. How many thousands of balls have been delivered without something of the likes of this occuring. People have been hit, but protected by their helmet. People have been hit, but with just bruises or broken bones. People have swung and missed and been struck in the body or had a near miss. It was an extremely unusually uncommon pattern of events. But it wasn’t freakish. It was an outcome that a relatively serious observer could predict or fear, even if imagining the chances of it happening were vanishingly small.
But. They call it chin music in some places, because we all know the bouncer is by design intended to pass right in front of the batter’s face. It’s impossibile though to ask a bowler running at pace to place a ball in the right spot from 22 metres away with an indirect action. Even if they could, the unpredictability of a ball bouncing off a pitch is one of the defining characteristics of the game, what makes it so different to baseball. Modern professional players can hit a single stump reasonably accurately at that distance, but they are throwing, not bowling, and they tend to be hitting on the full, not the bounce. Bouncers are menacing not because a bowler intends to hit a batter, but because they cannot possibly promise never to hit the batter. That’s the raison d’être of the bouncer; if the bowlers could make such a promise, they wouldn’t bother with the bouncer. Because it is intended to intimidate by its threat to hit the batter. So the batters where padding and helmets and generally make very quick decisions about when to play and when to duck.
I didn’t for a moment think Phil Hughes would die after he was struck. I thought he would recover, perhaps with a fractured skull. Perhaps he wouldn’t play again and I certainly wouldn’t have judged him for gaining a healthy respect for the risks after such an injury. Perhaps he would play, but be so haunted by the bouncer as to become unable to focus on anything for fear of it. Perhaps he would have come back and overcome it all. We’ll never know. When I heard the news I was struck to my core. I couldn’t properly process it. I was able to carry on as if nothing had happened for a few hours, as if I hadn’t just heard that someone was killed as a result of the sport I was so eagerly anticipating watching a again in a matter of weeks. It wasn’t until later that evening that I even questioned what it might mean given my all-but-abandoning of rugby league.
It’s not entirely fair to make this comparison, because of course Alex McKinnon didn’t die, he was merely crippled. The NRL wouldn’t have cancelled fixtures, wouldn’t have juggled an entire schedule, in reaction to McKinnon’s death. There would have been black armbands worn, and some speeches. Channel Nine would have aired a five minute piece during halftime, featuring McKinnon’s highlights reel and some community figures, Tony Abbott, Gould and Sterlo, and some random Channel Nine personalities delivering a few sentences each on what whatshisname meant to them. But in the end, the competition would have continued, just as it did. In the weeks afterwards the usual suspects in the media, including some of those from the testimonial piece, would written their columns denouncing efforts to modify the rules to safeguard the health and safety of players, calling it a freakish accident as if hoping something won’t happen adequately protects against the inevitable. In other words, the death of Alex McKinnon would have been indistinguishable from Alex McKinnon crippled.1
You can certainly bet the farm that there would not have been a repetition of Teddie Roosevelt calling from the bully pulpit of the American Presidency, for a game to check itself2. Not with this Prime Minister, not with this government. Not with a “professional” game. They would never have dreamed of telling a private company how to run its own affairs, despite all the privileges offered it. In any other industry, any organisationconstantly exposing its employees to constant danger would be fined out of existence.
I’m bitter towards the NRL.3. There is not the same poisonous culture in Cricket Australia. Obviously the risks within the game are not so often taken as they are in rugby league. And efforts are made to mitigate those risks. Bodyline still haunts the game despite the liklihood the modern player could play against it. The bouncer wars resulted in restrictions on how many times the ball can be bowled. Protective gear has progressed from the rudimentary helmets of the 70s. I’ll wince when I see the likes of Johnson’s intimidation tactics and I’ll never derive cheer from seeing it utilised even against the English4. But I remain confident that I’ll never look back at a life of watching cricket and feel that I have contributed, however indirectly, to the sacrificing of young people’s health and lives for entertainment.
1. Except for the grotesque spectacle of Alex McKinnon actively defending the actions of an organisation that willfully contributed to his injury through negligence. But he’s in his early twenties and thus clearly immortal; what’s their excuse? We all know what their excuse is.↩
“Brutality in playing a game should awaken the heartiest and most plainly shown contempt for the player guilty of it.”
3. Can you tell?↩
4. Despite how much I just like to see them lose.↩